BREAKING: Despite New Evidence, Cargill Denies Its Palm Oil Is Made By Slave Laborers

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Here’s the last line of a Bloomberg Businessweek article out today that exposes the human rights abuses rampant in Indonesia’s palm oil sector:

“Adam, the 19-year-old who fled the PT 198 [palm] plantation in 2010, says he hopes shoppers… ask themselves a simple question when they consider which oil to buy: ‘Is there slavery in this?’”

That’s a very good question to ask, but unfortunately most folks are not asking it when they go to the store to do their shopping. While the environmental impacts of the palm oil industry on Indonesia’s rainforests gets a lot of attention, human rights abuses like forced and child labor are less widely known. This Bloomberg article, which is based on a nine-month investigation, will hopefully help change that, as it documents abusive labor practices on 12 different palm plantations. The plantation Adam worked on—which is known as PT 198—is owned by one of the biggest palm oil companies in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd. (It’s not been an especially good week for KLK, as the company was also just charged by the Indonesian government over the illegal forest fires that recently caused the smog epidemic in Singapore.)

We’ve been working to convince Cargill to adopt safeguards on its supply chain that would prevent the company from trafficking in palm oil produced by forced and child labor for years now (and we’ve documented human rights abuses on KLK plantations ourselves as far back as 2010), but the company has always denied it had a problem. But here we have a proverbial smoking gun. Take action now.

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So what was the response to this report from Cargill, which received “at least 31 shipments of palm oil from KLK, totaling more than 61 million pounds, over the last three years,” palm oil that has now been documented to have been made at least partially by workers and children forced into slave labor conditions? Surely Cargill is taking this seriously, right? Especially given that Cargill then sold that palm oil to companies like Nestlé, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and Kellogg for use in their commercial products—products that are probably eaten by the children of Cargill employees?

Cargill’s response was the same as it’s ever been, denial:

Cargill defended its supplier. “At this time, KLK is not in violation of any labor laws where they operate nor are we aware of any investigation of KLK’s labor practices,” says Cargill spokeswoman Susan Eich in an e-mail. Eich says Cargill had recently consulted with industry observers and nongovernmental organizations and concluded “there are no active charges or allegations that KLK has violated labor laws or is engaged in slave or child labor.”

Let’s make sure Cargill doesn’t get away with using a PR flack to dodge its huge role in subjecting laborers and children to horrifying working conditions. Sign this petition now calling on the company to remove child labor and other human rights abuses from its supply chain.

The Bloomberg article is a harrowing read, but well worth it. You should go read the whole thing, but it’s fairly long, so I pulled out the part where it discusses the truly horrific conditions facing people like Adam, the Indonesian teenager who wants you to ask whether or not the oil you’re buying is produced using modern forms of slave labor. Adam was lured 2,000 miles away from his home based on false promises made by a KLK contractor, then forced to sign contracts that forced them onto palm oil plantation for two years without receiving pay until the contract ran up. WARNING: This could be a trigger for some folks:

At PT 198, a plantation near Berau owned by top KLK shareholder Batu Kawan, workers entered a system of tightly controlled forced labor, according to Adam and other alleged victims. At least 95 workers were held at the plantation for up to two years. At night they were locked in stifling, windowless barracks. An environmental NGO, Menapak, later reported that they were fed small portions of salted fish and rice, which several said were often weevil-infested. A truck with fresh water came once a month, but that supply would last no more than a week; workers pulled most water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking from a stagnant ditch that ran alongside the barracks. Adam says Handoyo confiscated their national identity cards and school certificates, along with a deed to a home, which his village collectively owned.

Instead of working as drivers or low-level administrators, the workers were ordered to prepare the newly planted palm groves. Some had to spread at least 20 50-kilogram sacks of fertilizer each day. If they fell short, they had to make it up the next day or see their already deferred pay cut. They say they were required to spray with the herbicide Paraquat, a substance that’s been linked to kidney and liver damage and is banned in at least 32 countries. (China, which announced in April it would phase out the herbicide, would be the 33rd.) Because they weren’t given protective gear, some claim to have suffered respiratory damage. An alleged victim, “Jacob,” who was held with his wife for two years at PT 198, reported nightly bloody coughing fits but says Zendrato denied him adequate medical care.

Other workers say those who tried to escape were punished harshly. One young man made it as far as a nearby river before being caught by boatmen whose livelihood depends on the palm oil companies. Once alerted, Zendrato’s men hauled the escapee back and allegedly beat him in front of the others, say Jacob and other witnesses. Several workers report witnessing Zendrato’s enforcers regularly beat workers with wooden clubs and occasionally with the sides of machetes.

Cargill’s refusal to accept responsibility for the abuses of its palm oil suppliers is all the more outrageous given the fact that it has never been a secret that these abuses are going on. A 2012 study by the US Dept. of Labor found that palm oil is one of the industries where forced and child labor were still an issue—but Cargill did nothing proactive to ensure it wasn’t part of the problem.

That’s probably because they’ve been getting away with it, more or less. As the Bloomberg article says, “[Because] palm oil companies face little pressure from consumers to change, they continue to rely on largely unregulated contractors, who often use unscrupulous practices.”

We can change this perverse and disgusting situation, though. Take action now to call on Cargill to cut child and slave labor from its supply chain.

If massive companies like Cargill, the largest private company in the US, demand that suppliers like KLK clean up their act, it will go a long way toward reforming the entire industry. But of course there are many other companies complicit in the problem—among them, companies like Nestlé, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and Kellogg that are in turn buying child slavery-tainted palm oil from Cargill.

That’s why we’re launching a campaign entirely devoted to getting snack food companies to cut irresponsible palm oil from their products. You can sign our petition calling on the snack industry to cut rainforest-destroying and human rights-abusing palm oil from its supply chain, and if you want to do even more, sign up for our Palm Oil Action Team.

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